Saturday 16 December 2023


Click here for a Spotify playlist packed full of Xmas songs and general good cheer! Well, some Christmas songs… okay not any, just the usual stuff. Sights along the way include…

Bardo Pond's blistering psychedelia doesn't know about us but we know about it, Brian Eno talks only in incomprehensible proverbs, New York punk trio Ut provide the spikiest of no wave, Low disappear (as they unfortunately did after the untimely death thus year of Mimi Parker), Jonathan Richman finds the financial zone to be something akin to Wordsworth’s field of golden daffodils, my bloody valentine take off for dimensions unknown (as is their wont), Mazzy Star ring dem bells - and more!

The illo’s a collage by the pioneering Pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi. (Much appreciated in these here parts.)

The Delgados: Lazarwalker
Bardo Pond: Don’t Know About You
Brian Eno: Blank Frank
The Waterboys: Nobody’s Baby Anymore
Ut: Big Wing
Sleater-Kinney: Ruins
Low: Disappearing
Emma Ruth Rundle: Protection
Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers: Lonely Financial Zone
my bloody valentine: sometimes
Mazzy Star: Bells Ring
Swans: The Sound

"Blank Frank is the siren,
He's the air-raid, he's the crater
He's on the menu, on the table,
He's the knife and he's the waiter”

Back in the New Year…

Saturday 9 December 2023


Tate Modern, London

“Probably the only thing one can really learn is the capacity to be able to change.” 
-Philip Guston

A World To Win With Murals

Everyone knows the Guston story. It’s the one about the dissident American Abstract Expressionist, the one who went back to painting… gasp… things, to great controversy. In a style bordering on cartoony, which some also found controversial. Which included depictions of the Ku Klux Klan. Which also proved controversial.

But as the opening rooms of this show demonstrate, his origin story was almost bog-standard. He was even a teenage friend of the most Ab of all Exers, Jackson Pollock. He followed the familiar recipe, which as we’ve seen before, was a mixture of Surrealist practices and the scale of New Deal muralism.

We start off with some fairly standard Surrealist works, clearly indebted to de Chirico but with the silkily synthetic painting surface of post-Dali. There’s nothing wrong with them, but nothing particularly right about them either. They’re regular, when Surrealism needs to be estranged from us.

The murals are a different story, however. He’d soon joined the Block of Painters, a group of political muralists in Los Angeles. As these are somewhat challenging to transport, they often get left out of this story. But the Tate goes to efforts, including projecting roving sections of ’The Struggle Against Terrorism’ (1934) on a wall. But let’s focus on a drawing, specifically ’Drawing For Conspirators’ (c. 1930, below.)

Its as politically committed a work as any Berlin Dadaist ever spewed. Had it been given a thumbs-up by the critics and no more, it would have failed in its intent. It exists to make a point. Yet however politically charged it might be, its not a reportage image. In fact its as much a tableau as any Victorian ever painted.

You don’t question this, the crucified Jesus and the black lynching victim being placed next to one another, because there’s no attempt to convey any actual pictorial space. The setting’s a stage, not a place, the figures theatrical. And the creation of works from big, broad symbols… this segues quite neatly into Abstract Expressionism. The symbols just become more general, more universal, that all.

But also… yes, the Klan show up this early. And why wouldn’t they? This period, the inter-war years was their strongpoint. And while this work displays their notorious anti-black racism, they were as much anti-semitic and anti-immigrant. With Guston (birth name Goldstein) a Jewish child of immigrants. In 1932, another mural of his was defaced by the LA Police (then closely linked to the Klan) when they raided the centre which held it. Yet at the same time the era contained a sense of hope, the feeling that old certainties had eroded, that what gave danger also raised possibility. “There was a sense of being part of a change, or possible change” he commented afterwards.

Guston’s personal image bank was filled up then, and he continued drawing on it throughout his life. In his later return to the representational pretty much all that’s new in terms of imagery is the backdrops. (Which are of his adopted New York rather than his original Los Angeles.)

And why shouldn’t this be? After all, when we’re young aren’t we soft clay, impressionable and absorbing? We then progressively harden as we go through life, until our attitudes become impervious.

’Bombardment’ (1937, above) is Guston’s ’Guernica’. Literally so, like the more famous Picasso work it was painted in immediate response to the fascist bombing of that town. The unusual roundel design is used to create a vertiginous effect, explosion placed dead centre, figures flung out at you from it. War’s presented as a kind of ‘big bang’ event, gestating the world we live in.

’Gladiators’ (1940, above) is similarly war-based, only this time it’s not happening to but embodied by the figures, who look inseparable from their masks. The composition’s a swirl of ceaseless combat, your eye never coming to a focus point but forever rolling round. Particularly with the blue angle, the frame seems to be moving down on them. The violence feels menacingly real, but at the same time the weapons are toys, a dustbin shield, a wooden sword. And it's another tableau. The upper left figure outsizes the others, but in so symbolic a work it takes you a while to notice.

’Martial Memory’ (1941, above) is in many ways a successor work, incorporating many of the same elements. (“Guston and the dustbin lid motif, in this talk I will…”) But its a more static composition, working out from the central triangle of the main figure. It’s thing isn’t motion but density. It features, as the indicia puts it, “forms overlapping one another in a very dense manner”. The result is that it neither resolves to either a literal or allegorical reading, inhabiting a kind of ‘between’ space similar to Paula Rego.

In this work the figures have become children, who frequently appear in this period. It’s reminiscent of the way children will repeat back to you what’s on your mind. Inevitably, their response to a world of war is street games of battle. Which easily tip over into true fights of their own.

’The Porch' (1947, above) seems a transitional work into his later abstraction. There’s still some suggestion of pictorial space, but with a cruciform shape imposed upon it. And the figures are stretched, the way a scream is an elongated note.

And 'The Tormentors’ (1947/8) seems almost the next step along in a timeline, the foreground figures fading into inscribed lines, the red-and-black background darkening to dominate the composition. Yet those shapes look not just like they might oncer have been things, they retain some sense of anthropomorphism. (The title suggests we should look for pre-Klan figures.) Perhaps because there’s something primal about the work, as if made from some pre-verbal urge.

All would seem to bode well for Guston’s future abstraction…

”The Process of Creation”

…alas not.

Guston's reasons for turning to abstraction are textbook and exemplary, both the right ones and the best expressed. Briefly, it allowed him to just paint. He made a point of never stepping back from his canvases never pausing work to check on the overall composition, lest that interrupt the flow of paint. “I am not concerned with making pictures,” he commented, “but only the process of creation.” The action of painting the painting is the painting.

But the results don’t particularly honour that noble intent. ’Beggars Joys’ (1954/5, above, is quite typical, with the de-centred cluster of brighter strokes against a paler background. In fact its one of the better works, with its shimmering quality. But this is art for aesthetes.

At the time, with Ab Ex ascendent, these cemented his reputation. He represented America at the Venice Biennale in 1960, aged 47 (a neophyte in painting circles), followed by a Guggenheim retrospective two years later. But the truth is, in the New York School he was but one enrolment among many. There’s no suggestion he broke away for this reason, but the fact remains - if he was going to be Head Boy, he needed to found his own establishment.

The impression’s often given that his return to imagery was some sort of Damascene convention. Like he sat up in bed one morning and went, “hey, everybody - things!” This show demonstrates how slow and tortuous it really was.

In the early-to-mid Sixties black heads started appearing in his work, floating Zardoz-like over clouds of brushy grey. ’Painter III’ (1963, above) is one of the more developed examples, with a brush-sporting arm appended, even reflected in the title. It’s scarcely a great work, and in a room of essentially similar efforts it becomes both repetitive and unfinished. But its significance is in his timeline.

Did those heads just keep arising, unbidden, in his work? And did he break off when he saw what he’d done, alarmed at the forbidden imagery, only to do the same again? It seems a bit too romanticised. Plus these works were apparently shown at the time, not hidden away. Nevertheless, surely something of this sort happened.

From 1966 he then took an eighteen-month break from painting. (“You have to die for a rebirth”, he commented later.) And when he started again, it was with lines. Just lines. Over time these became simple doodles. Blown up to the size of small paintings, but still simple doodles of single objects. As basic as basic can be. But, like the heads, their significance is as steps on his timeline.

The phrase often used for Guston is ‘return to figuration’. Yet he started off painting things, and that’s significant. The first object we see here is a book. And, from an artist’s perspective, what does a book ‘mean’? It’s a repository of words, the alternative to images. If an artist paints a head, he must find a specific head. Even if he doesn’t model the work on a real head, if one comes from his imagination, it becomes a specific head once its painted. While in four letters the word ‘head’ can stand for all heads.

And the stripped-down, iconic way they’re painted is surely to circumvent this problem. A chair or a shoe is designed to represent chairs and shoes as directly as the word would. Significantly, he called these works a ‘visual alphabet’. And a great many items from this alphabet then reappear in his paintings. At the same time there’s something cartoony about them, which makes them least a little anthropomorphised.

Amid Idiot Evil

By 1970, he had fully worked up paintings which were shown at New York’s Marlborough gallery. And this is where the legend starts. Critics raged, former Ab Ex soulmates never spoke to him again, leading to him feeling like he’d been excommunicated. No less than John Cage was dismissive, only de Kooning positive. From that point on, and significantly, his main associates became not artists but writers and poets.

Okay, about time we looked at some…

’Open Window’ (1969, above) recursively hangs some of those 'visual alphabet’ pictures inside a larger work, works-within-a-work. But the window of the title makes them fairly accurate descriptions of a stripped-back urban environment. (And this the New York that classic Modernists were so rhapsodic about!) Downward strokes predominate, suggesting dumbed-down art as a response to a dumbed-down world. It’s reminiscent of the Matisse quote, that the build environment does to our eyes what prejudice does to our intelligence. And we’ll see that stripped-back colour scheme recur again and again, off-whites, chewing-gum-pinks, muddy reds and deep greens, lurid and cheap.

In a similar vein ’City’ (also 1969) reworks city buildings as Klan hoods, narrow windows doubling as eyeslits. As if the city itself was a product of, or perhaps producing, Klan ideology. And speaking of which…

The first room contained a 1924 photo of Klansmen in a car, publicising a white power lecture. An image which reappears in ’City Limits' (1969, above). Guston may not have ever seen it but he must have seen similar things, perhaps in person.

But what’s significant is that they are not depicted in the same way as the Klan of old, as in ’Drawing For Conspirators'. Their appearance, with those sinister costumes, had been designed to strike dread into their victims. But their role as racism boogeymen had waned over time. Racism clearly remained, but it was less embodied in the Klan. And so those pointy hoods started to look a little absurd.

If his personal image bank was filled up in those inter-war years, as he started to draw from it he knew he was spending old money to a changed world. So he paints not malevolent fascist entities but knuckleheads, goons, bozos, neighbourhood bullies. In fact they become a more generalised symbol for knuckleheads, goons and bozos. Their car has gargantuan wheels, yet three figures are crammed into a tiny bubble cab, complete with fag smoke. (You could read that giant car as their externalised self-image, and the diminutive figures as their actuality. If you wanted.)

Adrian Searle describes them as exuding “idiot evil”, and indeed they seem like henchmen without a criminal mastermind, wandering this way and that, often pointing forwards like they wouldn’t know which way to go otherwise. Their nearest comparison in contemporary art would be Crumb’s White Man, with his mantra “I must maintain this rigid position or all is lost.”

Ands the style they’re painted in is as different. Guston had once painted children reflecting adult concerns. Now he’s effectively doing the reverse, depictions of adults in a childlike manner which makes them essentially children. With those huge hoods, the Klan’s heads vanish into their toros, the way child art won’t differentiate head from body. They’re often depicted oversize, both from the child’s habit of ascribing size to significance and as a way of portraying their grasping nature. The banality of evil via the cartoonification of evil.

As is well known, this retrospective was originally planned a few years ago. Then, after the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter, Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art in suddenly got cold feet over these images. Whereas of course when they’re relevant is precisely the time to show them! How could anyone get something so spectacularly wrong?

The answer is that the privileged forever mistake their status for smarts, when in fact it’s the reverse. Cushioned from the world’s sharp edges, they cannot see what we see. So they assume that they, the enlightened few, might be able to perceive these were anti-racist images, but what about us, the bewildered herd? As if someone could confuse Guston with DW Griffiths!

The only time either artists or black advocacy groups seem to have been involved in this is to complain it was un-necessary. Plus, all the furore when these works were first shown seems to have been over their representational form and their deliberately crude style. No-one then thought they were Klan-sympathetic. They were wrong - very wrong - about Guston’s art, but that didn’t make them cretins.

Further, the fact that galleries would worry then but go ahead now proves it wasn’t even the images being misinterpreted that worried them but the direction of social media trends. Potential flack coming down upon their own heads was a bigger deal to them than the knee on Floyd’s neck. Now black lives mattering is no longer this year’s thing, it’s safe to go ahead.

(Disclaimer: The Tate seem to have been more caught up in this delay than willing accomplices. And even then co-curator Mark Godfrey resigned from them in disappointment.)

And there another, equally important, dimension to this…

Klan Am I 

The Royal Academy show included a 1971 caricature of Nixon, skipped over here. Which may well be wise, as it can be played on too hard. Guston wasn't a 'political cartoonist'. More significant is all the self-portraits…

…such as 'The Studio’  (1969, above). It’s a painting of a Klansman painting a Klansman, brushes pushed to the foreground to emphasise this is a kind of self-portrait. Because as soon as Klansmen step from the sinister shadows and become regular bozos, we need to accept we are all part-Klansman. They’re our enemy, but not necessarily our external enemy. Guston said “it could be all of us. We’re all heels.” Or at another point, “I am the subject”. He’s shown smoking as he works in the accompanying filmshow, and I’d soon decided that any smoking Klansman was tagged as a self-portrait. (Which means that was also Guston in ’City Limits’.) 

By being a painting of someone painting, this foregrounds the graphic style, Guston painting himself as a Klansman in the way he depicts Klansmen. Klan men in a klan world in a klan style. And as Adrian Searle said, they “look exactly like they were painted by the kind of people they depict… some heavy, slow, intractable goon.”

Further, its significant the way the image is stacked - paint brushes before raised fingers before drawing hand before canvas. It’s not as dense as 'Martial Memory’, but it it feels crammed, claustrophobic, as if depicting an inescapable situation.

And this is enhanced further in ’Painting, Smoking, Eating’ (1973, above), by which point Guston was habitually painting himself as a one-eyed testicle. The horizontal figure actually only has a plate of food on him, the accumulation of objects is behind. But it's painted as if they weigh on him, accentuated by the flatness of the figure under the bedclothes. Guston called this stuff crapola, the detritus of life. And while critics’ claims to find Holocaust references in his work normally feels fanciful, the mass of discarded shoes here may well echo those photos of abandoned belongings in piles.

’Monument’ (1976, above) is like the antonym of those studio paintings, what Guston scuttled past on his forays out to buy more fags and tubs of off-pink. We grant a common identity to the crowd, simply by thinking of it as “the crowd”, while knowing at the same time it has none, its just an agglomeration of individuals. And so we get an apparition such as this, an assemblage of stamping feet without guiding heads, its bestial nature accentuated by the comparison of shoes to horse’s hooves.

There’s a famous quote from Guston: “what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going to my studio to adjust a red to a blue?” It’s blown up on the gallery wall, it takes up a page in the booklet. But it’s widely misinterpreted.

Guston was not such a fool as to imagine adjusting a red to an off-pink was a different matter. He wasn’t trying to recapture his politically committed youth, as if you could just transpose from one era to another, and from public walls to a gallery setting. He was using his work to ask himself just that question - what kind of man am I? If you didn’t care about the brutality, you weren’t a human being. On the other hand, if you didn’t care about your art, you weren’t an artist. So the artist cannot help but respond to world events, but at the same time cannot help but feel isolated from them. This art grapples with that conundrum.

Further, its now generally agreed that the New York School retained their leftist beliefs (apart from the occasions where they retained their anarchist beliefs), even when it wasn’t evident in their art. They would have all been aghast at what was happening in America. Which suggests Guston’s motivations were a combination of inner and outer, political outrage and a dissatisfaction with Ab Ex methods. And in saying this we don’t need to place one above the other.

Where did this new style come from? Robert Crumb, mentioned earlier, was soon complaining it had all been stolen from him. Yet he never really missed a chance to be vexatious. Both are really borrowing from the same source, the old American newspaper strips. It’s like arguing my band sounded like the Stones before yours did.

The show refers to this but, as is standard, insists that means George Herriman. Yet Herriman’s fluid, sketchy line could not be further from the blocky things stuck to these walls. Guston is borrowing from lesser-known but more regular newspaper artists, such as Bud Fisher. And he’s not even taking directly from Fisher or from any one of them. He’s taking from them on aggregate, the general way they depicted things, picking up on the common slang. Rather than trying to raise the comics style, Guston lowers himself to its base level. He’s more interested in their crudity, their scuzzy printing, their reduction of objects down to signs. And that’s why his pictures work.

Life After Klan

Though Guston is now defined by the crapola paintings, the style lasted less than a decade and the Klan had disappeared from them well before that. Laster works are more metaphysical, larger in scale and more spacious in content. They’re less fraught and frenzied, more contemplative. Expansive and calm oceans appear, as in ’The Ladder’ (1971, below.)

They’re perhaps best summed up by his comment “there’s nothing to do now but paint my life.” Guston said at the time that while he’s painting something he has no idea what it will be, and he didn’t see why that process should stop just because he’d stopped painting it. He quoted approvingly from Paul Valery, “a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning.” He wanted back some of the inscrutability abstraction had afforded him.

Still later works swap off-white for much darker and more sombre hues, often full black. The motive for these is mortality, as both himself and his wife dealt with illness. ’Web’ (1975, above) is a particularly nightmarish image, the spiders dominating the horizon, their distance only emphasising how trapped the figure is. Whether his death is near or not, it remains inescapable. The reflections of two of his key colours, muddy red and green, might suggest it’s his art he’s trapped in.

Should we see this as a good exhibition? As you may have guessed from above, it presents a compelling timeline of Guston’s career. But that may be a better thing to write about than walk round, as it gives greater weight to lesser works when we could have had more Klan paintings. (Not something to quote out of context!) The Royal Academy show of 2004 effectively did the opposite, sweeping through his early years, encouraging us only to look for emergent symbols, in order to bring on the crapola. Neither porridge is quite right. And Guston would surely have exulted in remaining hard to pin down.

Saturday 2 December 2023


Okay, so I promised there wouldn’t be another politics post. And that has turned out to be a Tory promise. But then the so-called ‘March Against Anti-Semitism’ happened (ably analysed by Vashi Media here) and this seemed too timely to wait…

Remember when Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader? Now back in 2015. It was pretty clear that a black propaganda campaign would be unleashed against him. But most of us (including me) assumed it would continue in the vein it had before, merely more concentrated. Which had chiefly been to accuse him of supporting the IRA. Instead, they almost entirely pivoted to accusations of anti-semitism. Which at first seemed odd. They had one script already written. Why switch to another?

Does this distinction matter much? After all, both serve the same purpose – which is really not much more than a heckle. What the heckler is saying is secondary, the point is what he prevents the speaker saying. The heckler’s role is to sidetrack them.

But treat this as a clue… Since then, it’s only become more widespread. It’s not just that the accusations against Corbyn are now taken as fact, including by the supposedly ‘liberal’ media. (I’m not bothering to debunk it all here. That stuff is easy enough to find if you want to read it.) It’s that it became their default brand of mud to sling against anyone they want to paint dirty. Partly they may just be building on success, of course.

But more is afoot…

It’s origins are easy enough to find. Criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestine had been painted as anti-semitic for some time, and with some success in making mud stick. (We have had rather a lot of that lately, as it happens.) That worked over there. Why not try it over here?

But more is afoot…

Rare… perhaps even alone among racisms, modern anti-semitism isn’t linked to material deprivation. Jewish people living in Britain aren’t, on average, worse off than white folk. This doesn’t mean they don’t encounter prejudice, or that this prejudice is somehow without significance. (Anyone saying there are acceptable forms or degrees of racism is now being escorted to one of the exits.) But it makes it something distinct from anti black or Asian racism.

In short it takes institutional racism out of the equation, leaving individual prejudice. And individual prejudice is the definition of racism they like to push, because it lets them off the hook. Racism becomes a problem with a few retrograde types, usually portrayed as ‘uneducated’ or working class. To which the solution is performative public statements, or progressive educational campaigns. (Anti-racist slideshows and the like.) In this way the source of the problem dresses itself up as the solution, it even sells itself as the expert who can heal our poor contaminated souls.

(This is of course how they tried to portray Black Lives Matter. But then there was a conflict between a ground-level movement and its twisted official reflection. A slogan widely used by BLM demonstrators was “white supremacy is the enemy.” While corporations used “black lives matter” as a buzz term to slap beneath their logos. Post a black square on Twitter, job done, racism defeated.)

But more is afoot…

Depicting anti-capitalism as anti-semitic is of course an old trick. But this brings a new dimension to it. The demise of Corbyn was the last hurrah of social democracy in Britain. Those who had been allowed to inhabit the leftmost fringes of Labour, provided they didn’t try to actually influence anything, are now to be (in that delightful phrase) shaken off like fleas.

Neoliberalism is now to be presented not just as the dominant strand of capitalism but as capitalism. Earlier, more pluralist forms have been memory-holed. And those who try to criticise or ameliorate it are to be painted the same way us anti-capitalists always were, as dangerous hate-ridden extremists.

In essence, it works like this… You are by your own admission against capitalism, which of course means you are against money. Money is of course to do with the Jews. Therefore you are against the Jews. In short the accusation is itself anti-semitic, as it actively recycles anti-semitic tropes.

It’s sometimes suggested that these smear tactics may at times get over-excessive in their zeal, but they’re coming from a good place, the desire to combat racism. They’re really not. They’re an instruction to look out for anti-semitism where it isn’t, leaving it alone where it is.

Further, it is a worrying but undeniable fact that anti-semitism is growing. But that needs to be seen in context, of racism in general growing overall. Those on the receiving end of other forms of racism often feel there’s a hierarchy of racisms in supposedly ‘centrist’ political culture, with them on the bottom. They’re excluded by racists, and also by supposed anti-racists.

The main incubator of anti-semitism today is conspiracy theories. In fact anti-semitism at root is a conspiracy theory, in a way other forms of racism aren’t. Conspiracy theories always end up saying “because of them”, and while "them” doesn’t necessarily has to be "the Jews" a whole lot of working out has already been done for you once you accept that. Abbie Richards coined the term ‘anti-semitic point of no return’, for the point where you cross the event horizon of lunacy and QAnon shreds your capacity for reason forever more.

White supremacy is a material fact about the world. You could pretty much prove it by looking out the window. So anti-semitism, the pretence of Jewish supremacism, is required to let whiteness off the hook, in fact absurdly claim victim status for white people. Claiming there’s something inherently strange and suspicious about George Soros having all that money is a way of saying it’s perfectly normal for Elon Musk to have even more money.

And precisely because there’s no material basis to the claim it's magnified to a ludicrous degree, where “the Jews” are supposed to direct everything that happens. Lack of evidence is presented as proof of how clever the sinister forces have been in covering their tracks. Hence the common tropes of the trapping web, the puppeteer’s strings and all that crap.

The widespread use of money was the inevitable consequence of the rise of commodity production. When we use the word ‘capitalism’, we essentially mean the expression of commodity production across society. But in the conspiracy theory it becomes a malevolent magic force, a kind of sinister spell cast by “the Jews” to disrupt the natural order of things. We have been calling this stuff “the socialism of fools” for nearly a hundred and fifty years now.

(There is of course a more convoluted relationship between conspiracy theories and power than that. Right-wing governments react by trying to pin their anti-semitism on us. But they also indulge aspects of it, such as the ‘white replacement’ conspiracy. But let’s leave that aside for now.)

Reader’s voice: “Well that’s all very clever, Gavin. But what should we actually do to deal with this?”

For one thing, we should ensure we never entertain conspiracy theories in any form. It’s not enough to just state that we don’t. Any more than you get to shower once in your life and be clean forever after. We need to stay perpetually watchful.

But of course that’s not an answer to the question. Even if we were to get a completely clean bill of health, the accusations would persist. They are not being made in good faith, but out of opportunism.

There isn’t a magic bullet answer here. But the short answer is to look at everything Corbyn did. And then do the opposite. Some will not want to hear this, but his response to the attacks against him was hopelessly naïve, a how-not-to guide. Explaining patiently one more time just what his position was and how they must have misunderstood it, that didn’t really work too well for him.

The answer was given earlier on. We should avoid all forms of anti-semitism, but that’s because we don’t want to be anti-semitic. We should deny all conspiracy theories, but that’s because they’re all wrong. And we should regard these charges not as tests of our resolve, but as smears, as heckles, as derailments - and treat them as such. We should not let our enemies set the terms of debate.

Next time, not more politics. Would I lie to you, guv?

Saturday 25 November 2023


The return of Call-Me-Dave Cameron has proved something. British politics really is like a soap opera which knows it only has causal viewers, so it can get away with recycling plotlines. The old villains can even come back with fanfare. Cameron is the Nick Cotton of parliament.

Anyone remember the mid Nineties much? Hard to think of it now really, but back then a well-and-truly scuppered Tory government was busily trying to pretend its days were un-numbered. While an incoming Labour administration, looking forward to a thumping majority, was assuring the nervous that to avoid inconvenience they didn’t actually intend changing anything.

Watching this all over again, it’s amusing to hear once more that this approach is pragmatic and statesmanlike. Of course a political party wants to win, and win with a working majority. Guys, this news has reached us thanks. Ever thought about what you might want this majority for? 

But party machines don’t actually work like that. In the same way the rich can never think of themselves as rich enough, they’re fixated on vote maximalisation. And in what’s essentially a two-party system, that means Labour taking votes from the Tories. By any means. Those other voters, already signed up with you, they’ve no other home to go to after all. So it hardly matters if they complain about the décor.

While the Tories didn’t counter by becoming more centrist, but by what they called “clear blue water”, by tacking further to the right. At least initially, this was electoral stupidity. But they were bounced into it, a prisoner of their ever-narrowing base. Like a constantly stumbling drunk, they’d then pretend they were intentionally acting that way. Then Labour, still guided to follow them by spreadsheet wonks, continued to step right after them. They carried on shadowing the Tories even when in power.

This doesn’t mean the parties become identical. In fact that notion obscures what happens. Instead the small and trivial differences between the two become everyone’s focus, become what politics was. ‘Responsible’ and ‘mainstream’ politics, at any rate. In political trainspotter speak, this is called the shrinking of the Overton window. Which is already too narrow to fire an arrow through, and shrinking daily.

Further, public anger with the Tories was not to do with their policies but individual cases of corruption and ineptitude. Which to be fair, there was an abundant supply of. But it allows them to be depicted as being at odds with our free and fair democratic system, with no thought given as to exactly how they were able to get away with being so at odds for so long.

And it overlooks that things like (to choose a more recent case) the crony contracts given out over Covid are what free market politics look like, and will always look like, when actually applied. And it means that the Tories can kick a few wrong ‘uns offstage, bring forward a few unknown backbenchers and be back in business. Sunak initially had a mini-bounce for precisely this reason, though without it happening across the board it didn’t (and couldn’t) last.

But the Tories coming back out the wilderness, of course that took a while to happen.

It won’t this time.

Smarter Blairites soon gave up trying to defend the Iraq war. It being, you know, indefensible. Instead they chalked it up as a one-off, a unique situation unlikely to recur. And grossly simplified and distorted history by making out that criticisms of the Blair years were solely down to that debacle. In fact Labour even went on to win the next election, their majority reduced but still workable. Nevertheless the Gulf War was like a lightning rod, galvanising opposition.

Whereas Starmer is having his Gulf War moment right now, over Gaza. Before he even gets to meet the Downing Street cat. The still-further-right Tories, with Braverman The Barmy or someone interchangeably fanatical at the helm, will return the sooner and Labour will then shift to shadow them. (“Yes we support the chopping the arms off for anyone caught attending a demonstration, to stop them holding any more troublesome placards. But this new policy of them losing their legs too… oh alright then, off with the legs as well.”) That thing which worked so terribly last time, let’s do it all again.

So we’re screwed, right?

Possibly, yes. But there’s also a slower and more seismic shift going on. Both parties are busily chasing one narrow demographic, which will most likely not be here in a few years. And you can tell how significant it is by the way they’re both ignoring it.

Tories are losing the youth vote, to a magnified degree, with signs they’re now failing to gain the Fortysomethings. To adapt an old Sixties phrase, the young get old, but they don’t go Tory. You can see how this has happened. Their generation crept rightwards over time, so they assume this is some universal law at work, people growing up and getting sensible. The fact that their generation had economic inducements to do so (you know, property, savings, stuff like that) eludes them.

And when they don’t just expect voters to turn their way, their main tactic is to make it harder for youth to vote. Voter ID was largely seen as creating obstacles against the poorer voter, but that overlaps with the younger voter quite considerably.

The classic case would be immigration. The Tories always act as though this is their populist trick, a scare-word which needs only to be mentioned (“smaaaaal booooats, whoooooo!!!”), and the fear-stricken will flock to them. Whereas the majority now have positive views on immigration.

(It was rarely mentioned that, while Corbyn was quite popular among the youth, his policies read a different way to them. To my generation they meant a return to the social democracy of the Seventies. But that was a world the youth had no experience of. To them it was something excitingly new.)

But by also ignoring this vote Labour risk being in turn ignored by them. They lose the Youth wall. Which could turn to a rise in support for a smaller parties, or a general disenchantment with Parliamentary politics. Politicians are just people who ignore you, so just ignore them. The vote becomes something like landlines, perhaps it had once a purpose for those oldies but no more, not for us.

Could this take us to to a more autonomous, ground-level style of politics? Which mainstream politicians are stuck with being responsive to. We act, then they are forced to answer. Possibly.

But it could also take the form of an internet-generated activism. This doesn’t necessarily mean mere clicktivism. Things already look too much like a series of single-issue campaigns which come in waves, each replacing the last. We’ve already seen some of this. Black Lives Matter gets replaced by Me Too, which is replaced by pro-Palestine, and so on. Everyone updating their forever-provisional social media bios in order to keep up. Nothing is ever built on, ever consolidated. Which may not be in a dynamic with mainstream politics, but still is with the news cycle.

Anyway, apologies to Nick Cotton for comparing him to David Cameron. I now promise to shut up about politics. For a bit, anyway.

Saturday 18 November 2023


On a recent ‘Question Time’, seeking to defend the military targeting of hospitals in Gaza, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg ensured he repeatedly referred to Israel “the Jewish state”.

The ploy may seem obvious enough. In Europe we’re used to associating Jewishness with victimhood, so pressing that button might bounce us into the assumption “the Jewish state” must be the victim again.

As we seem to keep being asked, opposition to the bombing of Gaza has nothing to do with anti-semitism. But in itself that’s insufficient. It also needs to be said that the bombing of Gaza has nothing to do with Jewishness. Because the insinuation is also misdirection.

Let’s creep on this sideways…

Conspiracy theorist crank David Icke, when seeking to slip (much deserved) accusations of anti-semitism, came up with a novel defence - he can’t be anti-Jewish because there’s no such thing to be against. What we call ‘Jewish’ is just a polyglot agglomeration of people, an arbitrarily defined category.

And, at least insofar as that goes, he’s right. Except the thing he isn’t telling you is that the same applies to every other racial group.

As more and more scientific evidence has been gathered, it has pointed to the fact that racial distinctions have no basis in biology. It’s not even that there’s no significant distinctions between races, there’s not even any meaningful distinctions.

Race is, and always has been, a social and political construct. The racial categories we’re lumbered with today were largely devised in the era of colonialism, and precisely to justify colonialism, to legitimise one group of people colonising another. Most people seem to imagine something like the slave trade was a product of racism. Whereas it was the other way around, it was its existence which made racism necessary. Race, as it’s commonly thought of, was an invention of racists in order to be racist.

Does any of that let Icke off the hook? Nope. What he says is true, but that’s somewhat over-ruled by it being irrelevant. By comparison, national borders are political constructs. They don’t exist in nature, infrastructure has to be built to enable them. But realising this isn’t the same thing as denying it. Try explaining this as a means to get into another country, you’ll find passports work better. Those barriers and border cops may have been built, but that doesn’t stop them stopping you. Built things are still things.

Take Icke’s argument to its natural conclusion and the Holocaust is suddenly no longer a problem, because the Nazis may have thought they were murdering Jewish people in the millions, but they weren’t really, were they? If anyone thinks this, I hope I never meet them.

But it does point to a vital way in which racism works in actuality. Racism professes to be a ‘common sense’ doctrine, dealing with immutable facts. Racists sometimes adopt the name “race realists”, playing this up. Whereas in practise it can be bent whichever way you twist it, so it becomes an ever-shifting product of alliances being forged and breaking down. This combination is precisely what makes it useful.

Similarly, what groups do and don’t get included in ‘whiteness’ has varied greatly over time. As colonisers of Ireland, the Victorians were near-obsessed with the notion that the native folk were really black, even if they unsportingly refused to sport black skin. Yet the Irish who emigrated to America were often employed as cops, in order to keep the still-less-white Southern and Eastern European immigrants down.

And so on Armistice Day the far right chanted at the Police “you’re not English any more”. They see ‘Englishness’, by which of course they mean whiteness, as their natural birthright. They imagine others are inherently jealous of this, and so scheme to undermine it. But it’s there inscribed on you, literally, like a genetic family heirloom. Yet when it suits them, ‘Englishness’ suddenly becomes a political alignment, which some will betray and so lose. The Police are English because they’re predominantly white. But they also stopbeing ‘English’ as soon as they bar the far right’s way.

As well as rallying that mob, far-right thug Tommy Robinson has also attended more orthodox pro-Israel marches. In fact, most of the British far right have now turned to embrace Israel. Because it fights against ‘the Muslims’, their current hate group of choice. And they imagine that by associating themselves so readily with Jews this lets them off the Holocaust hook. Which of course means the ‘real Jews’, not those not-Jews but the most far right elements of Jewish society.

And this works more broadly. It would have been hard to not to hear that mantra phrase, so trotted out by British politicians of both main parties in defence of each successive atrocity - “Israel has the right to defend itself.” Ask not whether the Palestinians have a similar right, you’d be met by an outpouring of manufactured outrage.

Which might seem a little backwards, when it is after all Palestine which is the one being occupied. But that is precisely why this has to be so insisted on. Palestinian actions are inherently tainted, not to be trusted. What might look like hospitals, refugee camps or even UN relief workers to the innocent might turn at any moment into terrorist cells. While Israeli actions are inherently defensive, carried out reluctantly, any civilian casualties held to hang on their noble souls.

And that's because Palestinian existence is seen as inherently problematic. This is classic colonialism. They must be subjugated, expelled or removed, because while we have decided their lands should be ours the awkward buggers aren’t playing along. They’re the natives, the Aboriginals, the Native Americans.

And this is Rees-Mogg’s trick. The “Jewish state” angle has to be stressed precisely because Israel doesn’t represent “the Jews” any longer but the whites, the West, the civilised world… it doesn’t matter which term you use, they’re all polite euphemisms for colonisers. And at the same time the violations of international law are obvious and clear-cut, all the old colonial powers have allied with them in this. As have the media, from the far-right shock jocks to the liberal ‘centrists’.

Plus, those of us minded to oppose war crimes soon found we were subject to the same framing. We’d chant “we are all Palestinian”, and they were happy to take us up on it. Like the cops with the far right, in their eyes we have chosen to not be English any more, we have chosen to side with the enemy. So our demonstrations are held to be inherently problematic and threatening, never framed in terms of their demands but their potential for trouble. I think we can assume hours have been sacrificed raking over demo footage for angles, with next to no results. And yet the eye of suspicion still hovers over us.

With nothing more concrete, this often takes the form of mere insinuation, the claim some might feel intimidated by our protests. And somehow not by pro-Israel rallies. Or Conservative Party conferences. Or pretty much anything else really.

In short, Israel isn’t colonising a weaker neighbour because it’s a Jewish state, but because it’s a state. It’s acting the way colonial states have always acted. Don’t let liars and apologists such as Rees-Mogg red-herring you.

Saturday 11 November 2023


First broadcast: Apr/June ’68
Written by David Whitaker
(From a story by Kit Pedlar)

“Everything’s so… dead, isn’t it?”

Sticking To The Plan

“Our plans are anticipated,” complain the Cybermen. And you can see how that might have happened. In fact, you picture the pitch meeting as going something like…

“Well, Dr. Pedlar, thats a good idea. But an Antarctic base being infiltrated by the Cybermen, with an international crew who initially distrust the Doctor then come to work with him… it does seem rather familiar.

“Do you think? Okay, let’s say it’s not an Antarctic base. Instead, let’s set it on… the moon!” 

“There was that one called… uh… what was it now... ’The Moonbase’.”

“So there was. Okay, then let’s really think outside the box this time. How about… a space station!”

“Capital! Six episodes, first draft by end of the month. Oh, and write the Doctor out of the second one. Patrick’s after another holiday.”

…and by serving up just the formula, like something assembled from kit parts by a committee, this loses almost everything which made the earlier Cyber-stories appealing. From ’Tenth Planet’ to ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, each had built chronologically on the one before. The Cybermen pimp up both their plans and their design, and try again. Significantly, though this story is surely set later in the same chronology, no-one on the Wheel has even heard of the silver darlings.

Worse, the Cybermen had always stood for something. True, this could change completely from one story to the next. But in a way that kept things fresh. This time they’re a merely generic menace, aiming to invade the Earth because that’s the sort of thing they’d do. They most resemble the sneaky scheming Cybermen of ’The Moonbase’. But there’s little connection.

Let’s face it, this story’s no good. But that’s not the problem with it. In truth ’Doctor Who’ was frequently no good, even if our rose-tinted memories shy from saying it. The problem with it is that it’s not mad. And it is the business of ’Doctor Who’ to be mad.

You couldn’t claim ‘Web Planet’ or ‘The Space Museum’ as any good. But, to pick up on a phrase used when we looked at them, there was a deranged imagination at work. The brief was to fill a half-hour hole in the schedule, watchable enough for viewers to keep paying their license fee, while sticking to the budget. And from that they came up with ’The Web Planet’. It’s the sort of left-field, out-there thing the show’s chief character would have made, if tempted from his travels and enlisted to programme TV shows.

The Hartnell era had effectively been the antithesis of formula. More because no-one had hammered one out yet than out of any kind of principle, but it remained the case regardless. Even when Hartnell was dull, as it often was, it wasn’t formulaic. If anything it had the opposite problem, it was hard to credit this wildly varying material was all part of the same series even if it had the same actors in it calling each other the same names. It flew without a safety net, leaving you obliged to accept falls.

But Troughton marked the time when formula came in, which proved tighter bonds than any captor foe. And from then that tension would never really go away, between going wilfully mad and voluntarily donning a straight-jacket.

Though this is true, it does need qualifying. It may be that the show required some sort of formula, if it was to have any kind of longevity. And it should be said there are stories aplenty which are ‘formula-plus’, which follow the formula but manage to go mad anyway, such as ‘The Macra Terror’. But then there are also stories like this. We’ve gone from flying without a safety net to six episodes of being tangled up in one.

True, there are flickers still of that deranged invention. And not a whole lot of citation seems required to attribute them to David Whitaker. The pod things the Cybermen first burst from are entirely unexplained and equally memorable. Jamie’s sabotage… well, getting him accused of being a saboteur would seem enough. Instead there’s reference to a Back to Earth campaign. (Whose slogan is what? ‘Just Stop Space’ or ’Leave Means Leave’?)

Had it been up to me, I’d have set the Wheel spinning in tension before the Cybermen arrive to exploit this, a relief ship delayed by months because of reasons. Instead of a couple taking six episodes to get together, have them already split up but with one unable to move out given the circumstances.

As it is, the lack of anything resembling drama becomes a drawback. There’s corridors aplenty, but instead of running through them there’s just sort of hanging around. On the other hand, the wilful avoidance of jump scares, and their replacement by an inexorable inevitability, is a rare strength. Most evident in the moment when the Doctor finally faces off the Cybermen. He turns around to find them already in the room, and calmly states “I imagine you have orders to destroy me.”

Some say the problem is is Pedlar’s science fiction approach clashing with Whitaker’s more classic-’Who’ sense of telling a story through symbols. They may be onto something. But this means that the absurd ignorance of science, for a story set on a space station, is often given as an ancillary weakness.

Certainly its there. Distance in space is measured in miles, even though space has rather a lot of those. The Cybermen (somehow) cause a sun to go nova, which is (somehow) near enough to affect the Wheel straight away. Which is does by “deflecting” meteorites at it, though they can handily be shot out of the not-air. (You suspect this is just a relabelling of the debris which would be caused by an earth explosion.) 

But rather than weakness this is a strength, adding to the quirky charm. Of course Whitaker’s not purposefully getting it wrong, he’s just not bothering to look that stuff up. But that tells you where his interests lie. It encourages us to see everything not literally but in terms of symbols, as he intends.

Meet The Cast

Whitaker has said his chief goal was to humanise the characters. He does make Gemma (the slightly more competent deputy) likeable. But the only one you could claim as characterised is Zoe. Who is clearly being signposted as the next companion. We see the others at work in the Operations room before the end of the first episode. Then we’re not told about her until the second, before finally meeting her. And she seems semi-removed from the immediate story, mostly hanging out with Jamie, barely encountering the Cybermen. (That widely reproduced shot of them menacing her is a publicity photo, not a still.)

As Pinocchio was a puppet who wanted to be a boy, this maths prodigy is like the calculator who’d sooner be a girl. In a story where the antagonist is essentially killer robots, she’s told she’s “just like a robot… all brains and no heart.” Causing her to reflect “but I want to feel things as well.”

(Fun fact! Originally ‘computer’ was not a machine but a job, for calculations which then needed to be made manually. Tedious work, it was often assigned to women. Though more often found working in teams, like typing pools, than a single teenager. ’Wheel’ seems to assume that in a space-age future there’ll be more need for this sort of work, with some even bred for it.)

Her precocious nature, manifested as a tendency to reel off facts and numbers on any pretext, is shown to be annoying to the other crew. Which makes you wonder if Zoe’s more popular than the later Adric simply because fans are more likely to fancy Wendy Padbury than Matthew Waterhouse. Nevertheless, in order to see more of life than log books she stows away on the Tardis. An improvement on the adopted waifs that were Vikki and Victoria.

It wasn’t great scheduling for this to come out after the already un-good ’Fury From the Deep’. It’s not just worse, it’s worse in all the same ways. If only Troughton’s second season could have ended on the high of 'Web of Fear’. But it never seems to work that way...

Saturday 28 October 2023


First broadcast Mar/Apr ’68
Written by Victor Pemberton
PLOT SPOILERS scream from the depths of this review

"It's down there, in the darkness, in the pipeline, waiting!"


Google-image this story, and see what you see. Admittedly, as we’re on another lost one, the options are limited to the surviving stills. But most hits are of that grotesque gurn (coming later) or the Doctor using a stethoscope on a piece of pipe (above). Both gloriously absurd, the sort of thing we love this show for. From them, I’d always imagined this would be at very least a good episode.

Alas not.

It's clearly another direct lift from Quatermass, though this time by a circuitous route. Hammer had intended ’X The Unknown’ (1956) as a sequel to their ’Quatermass Xperiment’ from the previous year. Ever-irascible, Nigel Kneale refused use of his character. But they just substituted a different name and used another ‘X’ in the title as the connecting element.

The threat this time was animate earth on the rampage. Which Victor Pemberton borrowed, tried to pitch it as a ’Who’ script, failed and so turned it into the radio drama ’The Slide’ (broadcast 1966). Through reasons unclear the rejection was then reconsidered, but with animate earth now used goods it was switched to sentient seaweed.

Now, seaweed and foam are not, at the end of the day, particularly blood-curdling things. In fact, when rooms start to fill with foam, your first response is to wonder if this is turning into an Ibiza-style party. 

But none of these are in themselves reasons to fail. In fact the show has already got away with worse. (David Whitaker apparently rejected it for the recycling, which is a little like the miner calling the steelworker red.) ’The Moonbase’ was barely any less generic but made use of its story type and, at least in its first half, generated a genuine air of menace and mystery. This is more like repeating something by rote, knowing you already know it. It’s not, by a strict definition, bad. It’s more flat, devoid of fizz.

Similarly ’X The Unknown’ had worked a whole lot better before the big bad was revealed to be not terribly big or bad, but did stir up an effective air of foreboding till then. With this, you spend a long time waiting for stuff to happen, then when it finally does it scarcely seems worth the wait.

Yes the stethoscope thing is brilliantly bonkers, but it’s gone within seconds. When the sinister Oak and Quill show up in the second episode things definitely perk up. (Helped by their scenes surviving. They were clipped out by Australian censors, and are now ironically all that remains.) Their menace is effective through being laced with comedy, and vice versa.

Quill’s open-wide gurn verges on cartoony. Yet this Guardian review of the animated reconstruction (which I’ve not seen) makes the interesting point that when he’s actually rendered as a cartoon the effect is diminished. It needs that uncanny valley.

But they don’t seem to have much in common with the other taken-over characters, who act more… well, taken over. And, as if there’s no way to resolve this, they get successively marginalised from later episodes and disappear before the end. Yet if they don’t make any sense, they do work – which kind of feels more important. And there’ll be more of that.

Against Vegetable Malevolence

The seaweed is forever taking over people, but only speaks at a couple of points. One of which is to insist: “The mind does not exist. It is tired. It is dead. It is obsolete. Only our new masters can offer us life. The body does not exist. Soon we shall all be one.”

Rather than standing for Those Darn Commies (like people are wont to claim), the weed does function as actual seaweed. Its a nature’s revenge story, stirred into retaliation at its abode being trespassed on by that intrusive oil drilling. And the point is how unlike us its vegetable malevolence is. Even with the Cybermen, becoming like them means becoming another iteration of them, another unit in the ranks. This is a step beyond that, we’ll all merge together in one vast undifferentiated blob. The earlier line “come over to us, come over to us” is perhaps repeated for both its literal and underlying meaning.

Now there’s an obvious objection here, which would run something like…

“Give up on this consciousness business. It’s no good, you know.”

“If you don’t have consciousness, how come you’re able to tell us to give up on it?”

“What? To advance the plot, fool!”

But then again, it does need conveying in some way and about the only means available back then was dialogue. In fact there should be more of it. “I have existed for millennia, you mayfly creatures must succumb to my enduring truth, soon all will be as it was before”… that sort of thing. Perhaps with several taken-over humans talking in unison. It would have been more involving than the endless “let’s do something”/”no let’s not” debates which take up most of the time.

Similarly, when the taken-over Maggie and Robson meet on the beach they speak more like… well, like they’re two people that the manifestations of one entity. Maggie walking into the waves makes no story sense. But it’s a good representation of de-evolution, a more sinister version of the Reggie Perrin opening.

And in offering an end to separation, a way to rejoin the all, the seaweed represents something at least partly attractive. We could be back where we belong, never confused or isolated again. All truly horrific things are also part enticing.

Interestingly, there are those who see this as another classic story. Some may simply want more ’Doctor Who’, and the more like more *’Doctor Who’* it is the better. But others may seize upon these few hints and suggestions and construct a whole story out of them, their minds overpainting all the generic features with something more colourful. A story which, had it just been served them, wouldn’t have been as involving as the one they felt invited to create.

This is always going to be the case to some degree, for watching or reading is never a purely passive act. But ’Doctor Who’ seems to invite it more than other things. Which is surely a large part of the reason why it came to have such a large fandom. We may even have a preference for an incomplete experience such as this, as it gives us gaps we can fill in as we choose.

And to say I can be sympathetic to this view would be an understatement. That’s exactly what I did over ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, at the very least. It’s what I tried to do here, though this time with more limited success. But there’s got to be some collaboration between you and the text, or you’re just daydreaming with the TV on. And this marks my limit.

Always a Base Chief, Always a Companion

As always, there’s the base chief who stubbornly distrusts the Doctor up to at least episode four. He’s been given other names, this time its Robson. At the same time, everything unique about this instance makes it worse. He’s worked his way up through the ranks and so has retained a shopkeeper’s shillings-and-pence brain, fixated upon production quotas. This leads him to thunderingly shout down the plummy voices of the boffins who try to talk more educated sense to him, the endlessly repeated set-piece arguments setting their different accents at odds. He seems so defensive as to be actively paranoid.

It’s not as extreme as the scheming Bragen in ‘Power of the Daleks’ but there’s a strong sense of power being placed in the wrong hands, inverting natural class hierarchies. There are those who will rightly raise the alarm when the show becomes racist, but show no concern over this sort of thing.

It’s true that time is put into Victoria’s send-off, rather than it just being tagged onto the end. And many celebrate this story for that. But assigning time isn’t the same thing as using it.

Companions tend to start well but degenerate into screamers, like Susan. Or some go the other way, starting out as tedious simperers then inexplicably gaining some gumption in their very last story, like Vicki. (Some don’t do either, like Dodo. Who should really have been called Don’tdon’t.)

Curiously, in her last story Victoria seems to go for both. She suddenly gains the ability to get out of locked rooms with a hairpin, but also perpetually blubs about all the danger like she’s only just noticed its there. Susan went off to get married, Vicki to have adventures with her new-found boyfriend. Victoria gets doled out substitute parents. Ho hum.

The weed being susceptible to her screaming is a good meta gag, even if it gets scant intra-story explanation. (It’s the “particular pattern of sound” is all we’re told. Is seaweed supposed to have ears?) God only knows whether this makes her more or less pro-active, but you can’t help but think for the weed to 
really be in trouble its weakness would have been whingeing.

Saturday 14 October 2023


First broadcast Feb/Mar 1968
Written by Mervyn Haisman + Henry Lincoln 
PLOT SPOILERS lie ahead, as likely as line delays! 

“It’s like a spider's web, ain't it?”
“Yes. And we're the flies, all right. But where is the spider?”

Yeti on the Circle Line

A mere three stories after ‘The Abominable Snowmen’… this is the fastest reappearance so far. Which takes us to a poser. As we’ve seen before, ’Doctor Who’ is often torn between the requirement of individual stories to do their own thing and the imperative to build up a rogue’s gallery of monsters. Repeat performances can lead to diminished returns. And yet the Yeti…

Their first appearance was, if not bad, not better than okay. While this, their second, is widely regarded as a classic. Despite retaining the original writers, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln. What can have caused this uptick in quality?

One answer is setting. Classic ’Who’ spends so much time hanging round the same few sets, getting those sets right is significant. And this is of course the one where they decided to take the Tube. Which makes a virtue out of the necessity for limited and confined spaces. And of then throwing everything into semi-darkness so you don’t see quite how limited and confined they are.

Even the one above-ground sequence in the fourth episode, though shot at least partially in the streets, is normally made up of close-cropped shots - rarely including any sky, keeping things claustrophobic. (Taking the Yeti out of the shadows, alas, works less well.)

But there’s an extra element… At first, the travellers don’t know they’re in the Underground. And while of course we watch with hindsight, surely even contemporary viewers would have recognised it before them. Or at the very least Londoners would, at a time the Beeb was London-centric. And they were supposed to. The original plan, after all, had been to shoot on location.

So familiar names like ‘Holborn’ and Charing Cross’ have been taken over by this alien entity, it’s remorseless progress displayed on the regular Tube map. (Wyndham does something similar with above-ground place names in ‘Day Of the Triffids’.) This may be so widely seen as a classic story because it does such a classic ’Who’ thing - defamiliarise the familiar, turn it into something sinister.

And, whether the setting inspired, whether new script editor Derrick Sherwin had a hand in it, or whether it was just a case of second time lucky… Haisman and Lincoln also turn out a significantly better script this time round.

In the big scheme of things this may follow in the wake of ‘The War Machines’ in establishing the ‘aliens head for the Home Counties’ story type. But it’s eerily empty settings are actually a more similar experience to ‘Dalek Invasion Of Earth’. And like that story only more so, everything is stripped down for action, pressed into service. It feels less meandering, more compelling.

As is not unusual, very little makes sense. (If what the Great Intelligence wants is the Doctor, who go to so much trouble to take over the whole of London?) But pressing questions are constantly thrown at you, to snatch your attention from this.

As has happened before now, the Doctor couldn’t be in an episode because Troughton had gone on holiday. Normally, everyone else keeps talking and hopes you don’t notice. This time his absence is foregrounded. The first episode cliffhanger essentially tells you itself how he escapes, even if we were likely to conceive he might be killed off. But with everyone constantly talking about him, you cannot help but wonder where he is or what he’s up to.

Though the overriding question, who is the traitor, suffers from hindsight. We all now know it can’t be the main suspect, because it’s the Brigadier. (Here still a Colonel.) Which, unfortunately, it mostly seems to be set up for. The eventual reveal seems both arbitrary and guessable. The Staff Sergeant dies then gets better again, even when the Private who died with him doesn’t? Mmm.

(There are admittedly set-ups. When Driver Evans, the comedy Welshman, gives the Doctor a Yeti figure which brings their bigger brethren to your door, he says this is on the Staff Sergeant’s order. Yet how he steals the web sample from the tobacco tin remains a mystery. And the most useful takeover for the Intelligence would be one person the Doctor never seems to suspect, the scientist Anne Travers. That way he’d know the lab findings straight away, without waiting for them to be passed on to the military.)

All-Out For the Otherly

More than most of the Troughton era, this story is saturated in the Cold War era, marinaded in paranoia. In the tradition of spy movies, what the Great Intelligence is after is intelligence. Intelligence inside the Doctor’s head rather than encrypted onto microfilm, but still intelligence.

Then there’s the deliberately inconclusive ending, when the Doctor’s rather Doctorly and Jamie’s more action-packed solutions conflict - allowing the Intelligence to escape. This of course sets it up to come back and be bad another day. But that was never so foregrounded with either the Daleks or the Cybermen. The lack of triumphalism is striking, and does suggest the way the Cold War didn’t just mean war, but war without end. (Early publicity shots of Jon Pertwee involved Yeti, so sure were they of a third outing. As it happened, quarrels over the rights ensured they never came back.)

Yet at the same time, again more than most of the Troughton era, looking for exact Cold War analogies won’t get you all that far. The Cybermen, as we’ve already seen, were a bad fit for stand-on Reds. The Great intelligence would be an even worse one. For that matter, it doesn’t really lead to any kind of analogies. ’The Abominable Snowmen’, as we saw, led naturally to talk of psychology and Buddhism. This story is so tightly woven it seems impervious to that sort of thing. Analogies bounce off like bullets from a Yeti’s hide.

Instead… Yes the Yeti are back, but this is the story which goes all-out for the otherly, ’Doctor Who’ as (capitalised) Weird fiction, if ever there was. But that Weirdness is conveyed through reference to things to be found here but which still feel otherworldly, on the borderline between being tangible and nebulous – webs, fog, pulsing fungus. The Intelligence is described as “a formless, shapeless thing, floating about in space like a cloud of mist.” The last story was titled ’The Abominable Snowmen’. Whereas this time that non-stuff even takes over the name. And not content with that it reappears in the end credits.

The vanishing fungus sample, however awkward a part of the whodunnit, fits neatly into this, as if the stuff is inherently ungraspable. Compared to them the Ice Warriors and Cybermen are solid, material things. They may well beat you in a fight. But at least you’ll recognise what’s going on while it happens.

In fact the image which will most likely will stay with me isn’t a rearing Yeti in a dark tunnel, even if that’s where Google searches go. In fact it’s Jamie and the Colonel opening a door. They fear there might be Yeti lurking the other side, as happened earlier. Instead they come across the pulsing fungus. It doesn’t look like the next room has something strange in it, it looks like the door opens to strangeness itself, one reality system invading another. It’s not entering our reality to enact some plan against us, the mere act of it entering our reality is inherently destructive.

Writing about an ‘Outer Limits’ episode he doesn’t even like, Mark Holcomb hits on the term “clinical weirdness”. And much of ‘Web Of Fear’s atmosphere comes from the matter-of-fact military mindset being held up against the all-out weird.

Moving the action forward a few decades, formally speaking this follows on from ‘Tomb Of The Cybermen’. Yet because of this sheer otherly business, it’s perhaps more akin to ’Web Planet’, even if the style is less interpretative dance and more Expressionist sketch. Count the ways - all a plot to trap the Tardis/Doctor (delete as appropriate), drones mysteriously carrying out the will of an alien intelligence, whose voice we don’t hear for some while. Not to mention the re-use of webs!

The Troughton era has a reputation for being formulaic. And it’s true that foes recur more frequently than with Hartnell. But just as the Cybermen were reworked in order tell new stories about them, so here is the Great Intelligence.

Yetis On the Loo In Tooting Bec

Among many other things, this is the story which establishes the meta gag “all these tunnels look the same to me.” You could perhaps argue for a long time over whether this is iconic and so became an establishing story in the show’s history, or it was establishing so now feels iconic. So let’s not.

Let’s note instead it doesn’t start in the standard way, with the Tardis landing somewhere new and their crew finding their way about. They’re travellers, after all, not secret agents. Instead the Intelligence makes a grab for the Doctor. There’s nothing that automatically associates that with repeat foes. In fact, ’Web Planet’ used it for an entirely new adversary. And ‘Celestial Toymaker’ for a retconned one. But it was also used with the Daleks, in both ‘The Chase’ and ‘The Evil Of the Daleks’. And a rise in repeat foes made it more likely.

But it’s generally agreed that more was being established here than ‘rogues gallery on rota’. It was also a prototype for stories set on contemporary Earth.(Well, England. Well, London. Well, North London.) Which came into their own with the next Doctor. (Even if they made full use of colour, while this is in every inch a black-and-white story.)

And so we inevitably head to that well-known Jon Pertwee comment: “All the threats should come to Earth… There’s nothing more alarming than coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec.” (And I would indeed be alarmed at that thought. My loo being in Tooting Bec, that’s going to get inconvenient.)

An idea which Wood and Miles, in their ’About Time’ guide, pillory as “the worst idea ever.” They make one valid point, that incongruity is primarily a visual motif and less a a story idea. (You see much of it in Surrealist art, for example.) But ’Who’ is often bog-standard plots set on repeat, enlivened by some iconic visuals.

And how do we respond when we get that? Firstly children often perceive ‘imagistically’, taking in a cascade of images, rather than try to follow involved plots. I for one, if looking at old TV shows or comics from my youth, often stumble on an image embedded but isolated in my brain, and think “oh, that’s where that came from.”

Further, memory is primarily visual and highly selective, more a still camera than a CCTV recorder. Where ’Doctor Who’ remained alive, before re-releases were even conceived of, was in people’s memories. The disappointment some feel when re-united with those classic stories may be that their association was only ever with a few images, but became misattributed to the surrounding three hours.

But more importantly, both sides in this debate suppose the link between creating incongruity and Earth-set stories. Which isn’t necessarily the case. What we need is the juxataposition of familiar and unfamiliar, which is quite distinct from saying that we’re English so can only relate to English settings. The important feature in the example above is that the ordinary-looking door opens from an ordinary-looking room. And for that to happen things don’t need to be set on Earth. The earlier story 'The Macra Terror’ worked in a very similar way, despite being set on an unspecified colony which was quite unlike everyday Earth.